Italian expression of the day: ‘Piano piano’

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Struggling to remember all these Italian words? Don’t worry: little by little this one will stick.

Published: 19 February 2020 10:51 CET
Updated: 28 July 2022 16:51 CEST

Learning a new language sometimes feels like an uphill slog. Why are there so many words that mean the same thing? How can you tell that verb’s irregular? Who says nouns have genders, anyway?

So it’s reassuring to be told, sometimes, hey – take it slowly. No rush. 

That’s how I first encountered today’s phrase: as a new arrival in Rome, struggling to explain to my elderly neighbour why I was moving in, to the woman from the telephone company that I needed internet, or to the repair guy that I’d spilled soup on my laptop and it was making a weird noise. 

Each one told me “piano piano” – ‘no hurry’ – and lo, I have wifi, I’m still using the same laptop and my neighbour recognizes me most days (she’s in her 80s, after all). And now I’m the one to tell her, when I see her coming home behind me and hold the lift, “piano piano, Signora, piano piano”.

While the word piano means a number of things (as an adverb, slowly; gently; carefully; quietly; or when it’s a noun, a plan), when it’s repeated it usually means gradually or little by little. You might also see it written as pian piano, or for emphasis, pian pianino (‘little by very little bit’). 

Pian piano ha acquistato una certa esperienza.
Gradually she gained experience.

Versare l’olio piano piano.
Add the oil little by little.

Pian pianino siamo arrivati.
Slowly but surely, we got there.

By extension, when you say it someone as an instruction it means ‘go slowly’, or even implicitly, ‘don’t worry, you’ll get there’.

Dai, con calma, piano piano.
Come on, nice and easy, take it slow. 

Just bear in mind that depending on context, piano piano can also mean ‘be quiet’, ‘be gentle’ or even ‘calm down’ – so someone might alternatively be telling you to keep it down, be more careful, or chill the heck out.

Fate piano piano, il bambino dorme.
Be quiet, the baby’s sleeping.

Piano piano, è fragile.
Careful, it’s fragile.

And like all great Italian expressions, it comes with its own hand gesture: palms up, pushing down and away a few times. Here’s Cristiano Ronaldo to demonstrate how.

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.